European Union - POLSKA УКРАЇНА

Qatar’s Emir Silent on US-Iran Mediation After Talks with US Leaders

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Katherine Ahn contributed from Washington.

Qatar’s emir has used his visit to Washington this week to highlight his nation’s growing economic and defense ties with the United States, but has said nothing about his apparent bid to mediate U.S.-Iran tensions.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday and Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the Pentagon a day earlier, with both sides praising what they called “increasingly close” strategic and defense relations. They cited Qatari purchases of and agreements to buy U.S.-made aircraft, jet engines and missile defense systems, the joint development of a Qatari petrochemicals complex and Qatar’s expansion of the Al Udeid Airbase hosting U.S. forces.

But the U.S. readouts of Al Thani’s meetings with Trump and Esper made no explicit mention of Iran, whose long-running tensions with Washington have soared in recent months. Neither did Trump nor Al Thani say anything about a Qatari desire to mediate between the United States and Iran, as the two leaders spoke to reporters ahead of their White House talks.

Qatar not only serves as a U.S. ally by hosting the U.S. military’s Central Command forward headquarters at the Al Udeid Airbase, but it also serves as Shi’ite-majority Iran’s best friend among Sunni-led Gulf Arab nations that have largely shunned Tehran in retaliation for its support of anti-Sunni insurgencies in the region. Doha has boosted its economic and diplomatic ties with Tehran since 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Qatar for its perceived support of terrorism and advocacy of improved ties with Iran.

In a report published Tuesday, Qatari news agency Al Jazeera, founded by the emirate’s ruling family, quoted Qatar University politics professor Majed al Ansari as saying Doha is “actively working in mediation between Iran and the United States.” Al Ansari, a former Qatari foreign ministry official, also described that mediation as likely to be a “main topic” of Al Thani’s meetings with U.S. officials in Washington.

In a Tuesday press briefing at the State Department, spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said U.S.-Qatari cooperation in dealing with what she called Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region would be on the agenda of Al Thani’s meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the State Department, June 13, 2019, in Washington.

But some analysts say Al Thani faces multiple obstacles in any effort to mediate U.S.-Iran tensions that have escalated since last year, when Trump withdrew from a 2015 deal in which world powers offered Iran sanctions relief in return for limits on its nuclear program. 

Trump reimposed U.S. sanctions on Iran and called on it to negotiate a new deal, saying the existing one did not do enough to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons or engaging in other malign behaviors, such as developing ballistic missiles and supporting U.S.-designated terrorist groups. 

Tehran has called its nuclear ambitions peaceful and vowed to continue those behaviors. It also claimed responsibility for downing a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf last month, while denying U.S. accusations that it attacked six foreign oil tankers in the region with mines since May. 

“I expect Iran to be the thorniest of all the issues that the emir and Trump discuss,” said Varsha Koduvayur, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in a VOA Persian interview. 

“Unlike Oman or Kuwait, two Gulf Cooperation Council countries that have officially declared themselves to be neutral, Qatar sent its ambassador back to Tehran in 2017, shortly after the Gulf blockade began, and trade with Iran is just continuing to rise. In my view, this doesn’t put Qatar in any sort of neutral, mediating light,” she said. 

Speaking separately to VOA Persian, Matthew Brodsky, a senior analyst at the Security Studies Group in Washington, said he believes the Trump administration is not interested in any foreign mediation of U.S. tensions with Iran at the present time. 

“The point of the (U.S.) strategy is to create the maximum amount of tension so that the leaders in Tehran reach a decision point (that) would lead them to the table to negotiate over not just their nuclear program but their ballistic missiles and of course their very bad regional behavior,” Brodsky said. “So a lessening of the tension … plays against the White House strategy to bring the leaders in Iran to a decision point, and that requires tension,” he added. 

Iranian intransigence is another barrier to mediation, in the view of James Phillips, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. 

“I doubt that Qatar could play a significant role in easing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, because Iran does not want tensions to be eased right now,” Phillip said in another VOA Persian interview. “As long as Tehran wants to continue escalating this slow-motion crisis, I doubt third party efforts will make much of a difference. But if Iran should change its mind, there may be an opening for such a role,” he said. 

UN: Global Warming Threatens to Defeat Effort to Fix World Ills

Relentless global warming threatens the potential success of a sweeping set of goals established by the United Nations to tackle inequality, conflict and other ills, officials said on Tuesday.

Climate change imperils food supplies, water and places where people live, endangering the U.N. plan to address these world problems by 2030, according to a report by U.N. officials.

Member nations of the U.N. unanimously adopted 17 global development goals in 2015, setting out a wide-ranging “to-do” list tackling such vexing issues as conflict, hunger, land degradation, gender inequality and climate change.

The latest report, which called climate change “the greatest challenge to sustainable development,” came as diplomatic, business and other officials gathered for a high-level U.N. forum to take stock of the goals’ progress.

“The most urgent area for action is climate change,” said Liu Zhenmin, U.N. Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, in the report.

“The compounded effects will be catastrophic and irreversible,” he said, listing increased extreme weather events, more severe natural disasters and land degradation. “These effects, which will render many parts of the globe uninhabitable, will affect the poor the most.”

Progress has been made on lowering child mortality, boosting immunization rates and global access to electricity, the report said.

Yet extreme poverty, hunger and inequality remain hugely problematic, and more than half of school-age children showed “shockingly low proficiency rates” in reading and math, it said.

Two-thirds of those children were in school.

Human trafficking rates nearly doubled from an average 150 detected victims per country in 2010 to 254 in 2016.

But it was unclear how much of the increase reflected improved reporting systems versus an increase in trafficking, said Francesca Perucci of the U.N.’s statistics division, who worked on the report.

“It’s hard to exactly distinguish the two,” she said at a launch of the report.

But climate change remained paramount.

Greenhouse gases have continued to climb, and “climate change is occurring much faster than anticipated,” the report said.

At this week’s goals summit, 47 countries were expected to present voluntary progress reviews. Almost 100 other countries and four cities including New York have done so.

Earlier U.N. reports said the goals were threatened by the persistence of violence, conflict and lack of private investment. Outside assessments have also cited nationalism, protectionism and insufficient funding.

The cost of implementing the global goals has been estimated at $3 trillion a year.

Despite Funding Loss, Cities Vow to Continue Resilience Push

In the Dutch port city of Rotterdam, nine “water plazas” have been created that soak up excess rainfall while offering people a green space to meet and children to play.

The city is also planting gardens and putting solar panels on a growing area of its nearly 20 square kilometers (8 square miles) of flat roofs.

Paris, meanwhile, is redesigning and opening green schoolyards as cooler places for locals to escape extreme heat, while in New Zealand, Wellington is rolling out neighborhood water supplies to keep the taps on when an earthquake hits.

More than 70 cities that are part of the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) network, set up in 2013, have crafted “resilience strategies” that include about 3,500 activities designed to combat shocks and stresses – everything from floods to an influx of refugees.

The United Nations estimates that by 2050 nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, which are increasingly impacted by extreme weather and sea level rise, while producing about 75% of planet-warming emissions.

Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, told a gathering of the network’s cities in Rotterdam on Tuesday that efforts to build resilience had now become established as an approach to improving quality of life in cities.

Those efforts to keep people safe and well in the face of rising climate, economic and social pressures will continue, despite the closure this month of the organization that helped them craft those plans, officials said.

At the end of July, 100RC will shut its offices after the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation said in April it would no longer fund the body, having given about $176 million for its work.

That funding helped pay initial salaries for chief resilience officers in member cities, for example, though about 80% of the cities now have made the role a part of their staff, 100RC officials said.

The Rockefeller Foundation said on Monday it would provide an additional $8 million over 18 months to help 100RC cities and their chief resilience officers transition to a network they will lead themselves.

“Ultimately, we aim to ensure continued collaboration and sharing among cities to address some of their most pressing challenges,” Rockefeller Foundation President Rajiv Shah said in a statement.

Expansion Ahead?

Krishna Mohan Ramachandran, chief resilience officer for the Indian city of Chennai, which has just launched its resilience strategy, said he was relieved it would be able to carry on with planned projects.

Those include conserving scarce water, putting vegetable gardens in schools, and finding less risky but nearby locations for flood-threatened communities, among others.

Rotterdam chief resilience officer Arnoud Molenaar, who led colleagues in lobbying for extra funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, said resilience work had garnered more support and created more value in cities than was often appreciated.

The Rockefeller bridge grant meant the network would now have time to raise more money from donors and others to stand on its own, and expand partnerships with politicians, communities and businesses, Molenaar said.

Elizabeth Yee, who moved from 100RC to The Rockefeller Foundation to manage its climate and resilience work, said there was a “huge” amount of money looking for resilient urban infrastructure projects, but cities often struggled to meet investor requirements.

She said a key to finding funding was to design a bus rapid transit system or a clean power plant, for example, to also create local jobs and make communities more economically secure.

“I am hopeful that we can keep helping cities develop those projects and getting them ready for bigger, broader investment,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the conference in Rotterdam.

Cities in the 100RC network have so far raised $25 billion from their own budgets, businesses and other sources to put their resilience plans into practice, 100RC’s Berkowitz said.

In a decade’s time, he said, he hoped urban resilience – with its holistic approach to multiple, modern-day stresses – would have become “an absolutely essential part of city government.”

For now, as cities rapidly expand and climate threats grow, much more such work will be needed, he said.

“Even 100 cities is a ridiculously small number of cities, compared to the world’s 10,000 cities,” he said. “We need more effort if we’re going to really win the battle of the 21st century, which is going to be fought in cities.”

Migrants in Libya: Homeless, Detained But Determined

Governments and international organizations around the world have condemned last week’s bombing of a migrant detention center in Libya that killed more than fifty civilians and wounded at least 130.  The horrific incident, however, has not deterred desperate migrants who still want to make the dangerous trip to Europe.  VOA’s Heather Murdock is in Tripoli with this report.

Indonesian Woman Convicted of Recording Boss’ Sexual Advances Seeks Presidential Amnesty

The widely-publicized case of Baiq Nuril Maknun, the 41-year-old school bookkeeper sentenced to six months in prison for recording sexually-suggestive phone calls she received from the principal at her school, has gained traction after the Indonesian government indicated a willingness to grant her amnesty – which would eliminate any traces of wrongdoing from her part.

After a meeting in Jakarta with Nuril and her counsel on Monday, Indonesia’s Law and Human Rights Minister, Yasonna Laoly, told reporters an amnesty could be announced after Indonesia’s newly-elected president, Joko Widodo, through the state secretariat, discusses the legal proceedings with the House of Representatives. One of Nuril’s lawyers, Joko Jumadi, confirmed to VOA that they will meet with the House of Representatives Wednesday.
 
“I think it sounds to me like a green light,” he said. “We are optimistic. We have to be.”

Several law experts were also invited to the meeting, one of whom was Bivitri Susanti who confirmed to VOA that the president was indicated to have favored amnesty. Last week, Joko told reporters in Manado, a city on Sulawesi island, that though he would not intervene with the Supreme Court ruling, he advised that Nuril and her counsel apply for amnesty.

Talk of granting Nuril amnesty followed a controversial rejection of Nuril’s appeal from Indonesia’s Supreme Court last week – one that upheld her prison stay and a $35,000 (500 million rupiahs) fine.

Case history

Nuril’s case began in 2012, when Muslim (who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name), the newly-minted principal of her school in Mataram, called her repeatedly. In the phone calls, he used sexually inappropriate language and even went as far as to tell her about his own affair with his own treasurer. As word spread suggesting Nuril and Muslim had indeed embarked on an affair, Nuril determined to disprove the rumor to her colleagues by recording the call.
 
Learning of the recordings, Muslim reported Nuril to the police, citing a clause in Indonesia’s controversial electronic information and transactions law that presides over defamation. Deemed innocent by the local court (though she still went to prison during the investigation) in 2017, the prosecutors took it up with the Supreme Court who later convicted Nuril of defamation in 2018 and sentenced her to a six-month jail time.

Indonesia’s Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly talks to journalists with Baiq Nuril Maknun, a school bookkeeper who was jailed after she tried to report sexual harassment, in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 8, 2019.

Her case has sparked outrage from activists and rights organizations. An online crowd-funding campaign has also been set up to help with Nuril’s fine (she would have to serve an additional three months in prison if she fails to pay the fine).

“From the very beginning, law enforcers have sided with versions of the story from the principal,” Usman Hamid, head of the Indonesia chapter of Amnesty International, told VOA. “They should be protecting Nuril as a victim, not brand her as a [convict].”

Nuril’s case reignited discussions on sexual assault cases. Joko, Nuril’s lawyer, told VOA that the Supreme Court ruling against his client set a “terrible precedent for future reports from sexual assault victims.” Her case came after Indonesia was embroiled in the discourse around the passing of the anti-sexual violence bill, which faced opposition from religious groups.

Amnesty v. clemency

Another potential legal means for Nuril is through clemency, though law expert Bivitri said that it would be unlikely. “Clemency is usually provided to people embroiled in extraordinary cases, say people sentenced to death or for life,” she said.
 
Amnesty, she said, would be the best way forward. “If the president grants Nuril amnesty, then it could prove that the government protects its citizens while honoring the judicial proceedings.” She added that amnesty would erase her criminal record. In contrast, the granting of clemency would mean that Nuril agreed that she was in the wrong and that she would ask for the leniency of her punishment.

“We don’t see any criminal wrongdoing here from her part,” Usman of Amnesty International said.

Indonesia’s former presidents have previously granted amnesty. In 1959, then president Sukarno granted amnesty and abolition to the people involved in the rebel group D.I/T.I.I. Kahar Muzzakar in South Sulawesi. In 2005, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono granted amnesty to the separatist movement in Aceh, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka.

“Joko could use this argument: for the sake of peace and humanity,” Usman said, before adding that history shows that amnesty has also been granted to individuals.

 

Sri Lanka To Slash Airline Charges To Help Boost Tourism

Sri Lanka’s government announced Tuesday it will reduce ground handling charges for airlines and slash aviation fuel prices and embarkation fees to help the country’s vital tourism industry recover after Easter suicide bombings killed more than 250 people.

Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said the decision will lead to an increase in flights to Sri Lanka and a reduction in ticket prices, which will attract more tourists to the Indian Ocean island nation, famed for its pristine beaches.

Seven suicide bombers from a local Muslim group, National Thowheed Jammath, attacked three churches and three luxury hotels on April 21, killing 258 people, including 45 foreigners mainly from China, India, the U.S. and Britain.
 
Tourist arrivals declined 57% in June from a year earlier, dealing a severe blow to the tourism industry, the country’s third-largest foreign currency earner after remittances from overseas workers and textile and garment exports.

The cuts in charges and fees will be in place for six months, said Johanne Jayaratne, head of the government’s tourism development agency.

About 2.3 million tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2018, when 29 airlines offered 300 flights per week. After the April 21 attacks, 41 fights per week were canceled, amounting to a loss of 8,000 passenger seats. Several airlines have reinstated their normal schedules since then, but others have not.

Dimuthu Tennakoon, chairman of the Board of Airline Representatives, said the government decision will encourage airlines to increase their capacity and offer attractive fares.
 
“That will definitely happen with this reduction because fuel and ground handling contribute a significant percentage of the total cost element of any airline,” he said.

Tourism accounts for 4.9% of Sri Lanka’s GDP. Around half a million Sri Lankans depend directly on tourism and 2 million indirectly.
 
The government currently predicts $3.7 billion in revenue from tourism this year, down from an initial forecast of $5 billion.

 

Iowa, Nevada to Launch Caucus Voting by Phone for 2020

Democrats in the early presidential contest states of Iowa and Nevada will be able to cast their votes over the telephone instead of showing up at their states’ traditional neighborhood caucus meetings next February, according to plans unveiled by the state parties.

The tele-caucus systems, the result of a mandate from the Democratic National Committee, are aimed at opening the local-level political gatherings to more people, especially evening shift-workers and people with disabilities, whom critics of the caucuses have long said are blocked from the process.

The changes are expected to boost voter participation across the board, presenting a new opportunity for the Democratic Party’s 2020 candidates to drive up support in the crucial early voting states.

“This is a no-excuse option” for participation, said Shelby Wiltz, the Nevada Democrats’ caucus director.

Party officials don’t have an estimate of how many voters will take advantage of the call-in option. But in Iowa, some recent polls show as many as 20% of Democrats will participate virtually. In Nevada, most voters tend to cast ballots early during regular elections, and party officials expect many will take advantage of the early presidential vote.

FILE – A precinct captain argues his position during a Democratic caucus at the University of Nevada in Reno, Nevada, Feb. 20, 2016.

While rolling out a new voting system holds the promise of more voter participation, it also comes with potential risk for confusion or technical troubles. But the party is moving forward to try and address long-standing criticism that the caucuses are exclusionary and favor some candidates over others.

Increasing criticism

The Iowa caucuses, a series of party-run, local-level organizing meetings that adopted a presidential preference element more than 50 years ago, have come under increasing criticism in the past decade for their fixed evening time and place. Such rules effectively barred participation in the first-in-the-country nominating contest, for instance, for parents unable to find child care or older voters hesitant to venture out in the dead of winter.

Hillary Clinton and her supporters complained that Iowa’s process “disenfranchised” those unable to attend after she finished a disappointing third place in the 2008 caucuses.

In 2016, backers of Sen. Bernie Sanders cried foul over the Iowa results when Clinton won a razor-thin margin, 49.9% to 49.6%, despite some irregularities in reporting results. The dispute, replicated in part in Nevada, was a key factor in the push from groups on the left to overhaul the nominating process heading into 2020.

Nevada, the third state in the Democrats’ nominating contest sequence, has only been an early caucus state since 2008, and the process still remains relatively new to many residents.

Rural benefits

By opting for a dial-in program, the systems can reach people in Iowa’s and Nevada’s vast rural stretches where broadband internet coverage may be spotty. Iowa since 2014 has offered a smaller-scale tele-caucus, allowing out-of-state members of the military and Iowans living abroad to call in to live neighborhood caucus meetings and participate over the phone.

“One, we are a rural state. And let’s be honest, outside of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada is a rural state. Everyone is connected by phone,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said.

FILE – Precinct Chairwoman Judy Wittkop explains the rules during a caucus in Le Mars, Iowa, Jan. 3, 2008.

The DNC’s mandate has been a challenge for party operatives who sought to maintain security while also maintaining the spirit of the caucuses, which are chiefly local, party-building activities aimed at electing delegates to party conventions. Officials say by avoiding an internet-based program, they are reducing the risk of hacking, a key concern in an era of renewed concern about election tampering.

While Nevada Democrats said accessibility, not security, drove them to opt for a phone-in system, Iowa Democrats said they felt a lower-tech option was safer.

“With this system, it’s easier than making sure thousands of computers across the state are not filled with malware and not being hacked,” Price said.

Security concerns

Yet officials acknowledge that relying on phone systems does raise security concerns.

“Are they unhackable? Certainly not,” said Jeremy Epstein, a voting systems expert with ACM, the largest international association of computer science professionals. “None of these technologies are really bullet proof.”

The state parties presented their plans late last month to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. Committee members applauded the work and gave conditional approval but asked for more information about the security and functionality of the systems.

“We are working with every state party that is integrating these tools so they can make their voting process secure and successful. We look forward to working with Democrats in these states to address the committee’s questions,” DNC spokesman David Bergstein said in a statement.

Both state parties plan to require Democratic voters to register online in advance of their virtual caucus, verifying their identity with a “multi-factor authentication.” Voters will receive a PIN that they’ll have to enter when they call in to participate.

Iowans who register on time will have six times to choose from to participate by phone, including the in-person caucus night, Feb. 3. Nevadans who register for the virtual caucus can participate on Feb. 16 or 17. Unlike Iowa, Nevada is also offering four days of in-person early caucusing to give people more options.

Wiltz said security experts with the DNC will be vetting the systems later this year to test for vulnerabilities to breaches or hacking.

“This isn’t something that we’re taking lightly. We understand our responsibility,” Wiltz said.

Melania Trump in West Virginia for Opioid Talk

First lady Melania Trump is visiting West Virginia to learn how a city at the center of the nation’s opioid epidemic is grappling with the crisis.

Trump on Monday participated in a roundtable discussion on opioids with federal, state and local officials in Huntington, West Virginia. Federal statistics show West Virginia has the highest opioid overdose rate in the U.S.

During the roughly hour-long meeting, Trump heard about how police, schools and health care centers in the area are fighting the opioid scourge. Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said it’s a grim task, and added that his city would still have to deal with the epidemic for at least the next 40 years even if all heroin sales were to abruptly stop.